Immigration court observers say government prosecutors continue to drop deportation cases in troubled Alamance County, but federal customs officials say they cannot count how many.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says the agency, charged with enforcing the nation's immigration laws, does not track the number of cases voluntarily dismissed by prosecutors.
Indy Week requested the data in October to assess the continuing fallout from a Sept. 18 U.S. Department of Justice statement that accused the Alamance County Sheriff's Office and Sheriff Terry Johnson of racial profiling.
Marty Rosenbluth, a Triangle lawyer specializing in defending immigrants in deportation cases, says he can count at least two dozens cases tossed by prosecutors since September, all of them stemming from arrests by Johnson's embattled office.
In some cases, Rosenbluth says, deportation proceedings are even voluntarily nixed for defendants without an attorney—defendants who typically stand little chance of avoiding deportation.
ICE spokesman Vinnie Picard says he's unsure why the agency would not track such information.
The Department of Justice report alleged Johnson's office targeted Latino drivers, routinely installed traffic checkpoints in Latino neighborhoods and frequently arrested Latino motorists for offenses that spurred only warnings or citations for other drivers.
The report also accused Johnson of using slurs such as "taco eater" to describe Latinos and masking the profiling in traffic data reports.
The DOJ released that statement shortly after an Indy analysis of traffic data found Latino drivers were twice as likely as non-Latinos to be arrested by Johnson's deputies during traffic stops. Arrests are key because an immigrant's citizenship status is checked when he or she is booked into the local jail.
The DOJ report concluded a two-year investigation of Johnson's office, in which federal officials scrutinized its traffic data and policies. DOJ leaders said they also interviewed hundreds of Alamance community members, including current and former sheriff's office employees.
Picard confirmed in October that cases initiated by Alamance deputies were being dropped, but he declined to say how many.
"I wouldn't say that cases are being closed solely because of the report, but it is a factor that has led to that outcome in some cases," Picard said.
Since September, the DOJ has not announced any further action against Johnson's office. This is despite speculation by activists weeks ago that a lawsuit against Johnson's office was likely forthcoming. A DOJ spokeswoman could not provide an update when contacted Monday.
But during the fallout, ICE jettisoned its controversial 287(g) contract with Alamance County, an agreement that allowed deputies to initiate deportation proceedings. Under 287(g), Alamance deputies could begin deportation, but, as Rosenbluth points out, the final decision on deportation rested with ICE.
The controversy erupted as many critics noted undocumented immigrants were facing deportation for minor traffic offenses such as driving without a license. The DOJ statement pointed to numerous Latinos arrested solely for driving without a license as a sign of profiling, stating that such an offense is not observable from the road.
Rosenbluth says ICE, by expediting deportation in such cases, flouted federal directives ordering customs officials to focus their efforts on dangerous criminals rather than low-level offenders.
"ICE could have said no at any point," he said. "But they've not done so."
Meanwhile, Johnson has remained quiet on the controversy, but some county officials have defended his office.
In a Sept. 26 letter to DOJ Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, Alamance attorney S.C. Kitchen denounced the racial profiling claims as politically motivated attacks based on rumors and news accounts.
Reached Monday, sheriff's office spokesman Randy Jones scoffed at the DOJ allegations as "baseless," adding that federal officials have not contacted his office since the September report.
"If they don't have anything to hide, why don't they bring their allegations out?" Jones said.
Jones said he is unaware of any Alamance deportation cases dropped since the DOJ statement, although he said his office typically did not follow the cases to their conclusion, leaving the matter to ICE officials.
The reports of the dismissed deportation cases could be good news for sheriff's office foes who say Johnson's office has long maintained a bias toward Alamance County's Latino community.
But there's sobering news, too. Rosenbluth said ICE prosecutors continue to pursue deportation in similar arrests by other Alamance law enforcement agencies.
"The same racial profiling is still going on," Rosenbluth said. "People are still being deported for driving without a license."
This article appeared in print with the headline "ICE-breaking in Alamance."